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Following a suggestion I have been reading a book by Naomi Lamoreaux on the development of banking in New England1. It is called Insider Lending: Banks, Personal Connections, and Economic Development in Industrial New England.

She makes a number of excellent points in the book, and, to me, anyone with an interest in the development of modern banking should give it a look. Quite a few of the points she makes relate to the way that the improving understanding of credit risk, and the development of modern risk management, was, to a large extent, responsible for the development of modern, large banks.

I would argue, consistent with my earlier post on regulation, that it was not solely this, as an increase in regulation did play a major part, but I think it was more of a virtuous (or perhaps vicious) circle – with an increase in the size of banks, and an increasing ability to lend to whoever happened to turn up to the bank driving further regulation – which then effectively forced the smaller banks to grow or perish – creating more regulation.

The central point of the book is simple – early banking in the US (and, she presumes, elsewhere) was severely hampered by an inability to assess credit risk, so what happened was when a bank was founded it generally had several directors, men (and they were all men) of substance who effectively both lent their names to the bank and risked a large part of their fortunes in the venture.

In return, what they got was access to the banks funds, with a typical bank lending between 20 and 50% of its funds either to the directors or family members of the directors – the “insiders” of the title. They were, to an extent, protected from unlimited liability by the bank’s charter, but  this protection was often more illusory than real as to default would normally not only spell the end of the bank, but also the reputation of the individual directors.

The result was that the directors typically had an overwhelming say in the allocation of the bank’s lending, and they often lent to themselves or to others they knew well.

While today this may be looked on askance (and as possible criminal activity) then it was considered normal business for the reasons set out above. The difficulty of assessing credit risk meant that only lending to people you knew well (and, presumably trusted) was reasonably safe and, as you effectively had your own money on the line, you wanted to be really safe.

This had several effects – most people were effectively locked out of the banking system until they reached a point where they were rich enough to either own their own bank or to know someone who did. The second was that banks tended to be small – really small – with around 6 directors each and few employees. They also tended to have really high capital and liquidity ratios and charge really big margins. This then locked still more people out of the borrowing market.

The development of modern risk management practice, in all fields but particularly credit risk management, put paid to this model. While a few micro banks lingered into the modern era (and a few unit banks survive in the US) the bulk either went out of business or were bought out in the period up to the first world war.

The simple fact is that bigger banks, once you can overcome the difficulty of finding the good risks to lend to, are much, much more efficient2. If you can lend to more people, and people you do not personally know, you do not need your (comparatively expensive) directors to take every decision. You can directly obtain diversification benefits, cutting down losses per dollar lent. You can also, as a consequence, reduce your liquidity and capital ratios so you can drive more lending off the same amount of deposits (not, of course, that you can lend more than you have in deposits) and you can generally make more money.

For those campaigners for “social equity” it also makes a clear point – without modern risk management the poor are effectively locked out of the banking system entirely – so if they want (or need) to borrow funds they need to go to the loan sharks to get one. Personally, I would prefer to pay 6 to 10 percent to a bank than 20 to 50 percent to a loan shark. The bank also tend to not threaten to break my legs for non-payment. Banks can be funny that way.

The directors also become much more removed from the day-to-day operations,becoming more like the modern directors of a bank, able to reduce the risk to their own personal assets that may result from a bank collapse.

I would encourage readers to have a look for this book and give it a read, as it fills in a hole often left in the discussions on the development of modern banking.


1. For those not familiar with the term, or who may be thinking of another New England as there are several, she means the US states to the north east of New York.

2. They can also, as I pointed out earlier, deal with the regulation better, and they can lobby government more effectively – i.e. be more efficient rent seekers.

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